Though the Hawkins Co. BOE voted on June 8 to proceed with the $1.25 million purchase of artificial turf at both Volunteer and Cherokee High Schools, the budget including the allocation of money for this purpose must first be approved by the full commission before it will be official.

If the June 15 joint meeting of the Commission’s education and finance committees is any indication of things to come, this purchase will be the subject of much discussion.

Though four commissioners shared their concerns over the purchase, the Hawkins Co. Schools’ 2019-2020 budget amendments (that included the purchase of turf) were approved 6-1 by the budget committee and will go before the full commission next Monday.

“I don’t feel that this is the time”

Hawkins Co. Schools Finance Director Melissa Farmer told the committees that, at this point in the 2020-2021 budget planning process, the system will take an estimated $4.2 million from the undesignated fund balance to balance the budget.

However, she noted that this is based off of budgeted revenues and not actual revenues, since Farmer does not yet have May or June’s revenues.

“I don’t anticipate it taking $4.2 million to balance our budget truly once we get to the end of the fiscal year,” she said.

She also pointed out that the past five years’ budgets have proven this to be true.

“We’re estimating we’re going to use around $4 million (from the undesignated fund balance for 2020-2021, but, at the same time, we’re taking $1.25 million to buy turf?” Commissioner Valerie Goins asked in response. “Plus, we’re in a pandemic, and we’ve had lots of shortfalls because of that. I don’t feel that this is the time to do that.”

She went on to suggest that the VHS football team play at either Church Hill or Surgoinsville Middle School for a while rather than buying turf this year.

Farmer explained that the $1.25 million allotted for the turf was not explicitly in the 2020-2021 budget and is an amendment to the 2019-2020 budget.

“As far as actually budgeted in 2020-2021, there is nothing actually budgeted for that yet,” she said.

Setting us up for long-term savings“I get the concern,” Hixson said in response. “But, we’re doing things in the district that will hopefully set us up for long-term savings. We estimate about a $1.2 million operating cost for two of our school sites (Keplar and McPheeter’s Bend Elementary) that we have potentially looked at closing this next year. That’s an ongoing operational cost that comes back to the district. Fields are largely one-time every decade or 12 years. It is bad timing as far as the condition of that playing surface, but it is something that needs to be done.”

He noted that, if students are not able to play football this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, then the field would at least be repaired and ready to use next year.

“We look at those as maintenance costs,” he added. “We don’t like spending the money, but those are costs that, if we’re going to offer those programs, need to be kept up.”

However, Goins said she felt “it doesn’t send the right message” to close two schools due to budget savings while purchasing $1.25 million turf.

How did it get this bad?Goins also asked why VHS’s field was in such bad shape that it needed immediate repairs—especially since CHS’s field is still in good shape.

Hixson explained that CHS has a much stronger booster program than VHS. He also explained that drainage issues have contributed to the condition of the VHS field, and that those are currently being worked on.

He went on to add that the expectations for field upkeep have been recently revisited with both schools’ coaching staff.

“Over time, because of the soil that is at Volunteer, which is drastically different than Cherokee, the rock and debris that’s under the topsoil there doesn’t lend itself well to drainage,” he said. “Some of the infrastructure we put in up there will make the field last a lot longer, especially if we go with turf.”

“It took us 40 years to figure that out?” Goins asked.

“I can’t speak to the whole history, but I get the concern, and we share that concern,” Hixson replied. “Nevertheless, it is a situation that has to be resolved. We can look back, point fingers here and there, and try to figure out what led to that point, and make sure we avoid it in the future—which we’re doing—but, it has to be addressed, and we have to move forward.”

Turf and no teacher raise“Who’s the accountability for that?” Commissioner Nancy Barker asked.

“The administration at the school,” he responded. “That’s why we put the procedures in place last year and the end of this year.”

“I would hate to put in turf and then run into the same situation we’re in now—where there’s no accountability there,” Barker said. “We can talk about ‘we don’t have a booster club’ or ‘we don’t have this and that,’ but who’s accountable for seeing those things get taken care of?”

She went on to add, “My biggest concern is that we’re not giving the teachers a raise (per Governor Lee’s rejection of the 2 percent raise he once planned in the COVID-19 budget). One of the problems we have had in keeping and maintaining good teachers is the pay scale.”

She went on to note Volunteer’s quick turnaround in coaching staff.

“We’re never going to keep a coach unless we get a salary scale where we can keep people for a longer amount of time,” she added. “I’m pro athletics, but how are we going to address that if we’re spending this much on turf?”

Both Commissioner Rick Brewer and Danny Alvis also expressed their opposition to paying for turf.

“Priority needs to be on education”“I don’t disagree with anything you’ve mentioned,” Hixson told the committees. “I think the priority needs to be on our student learning and academics—beyond sports. If given a choice to put money into academics or sports, I’m going to go academics 100 percent, and I think our board would too. However, we do offer sports, and it’s an engagement tool for our students. I think we deserve to do that if possible.”

He also went on to add that the district is looking into a possible teacher bonus for this year, with the details to be finalized later this year.

He also noted that there are options to offset the cost of maintaining the turf so that it doesn’t cost the full $1.25 million when the turf needs replaced.

The ‘us versus them’ needs to stopCommissioner Danny Alvis told the committees that he saw no need to allot money for turf at CHS when their field was still in good condition.

“Regarding the ‘us versus them’ mentality, I’m going to be addressing that with our staff across the county,” Hixson added. “That needs to stop. There are going to be things that come up on one end of the county that may not hit the other end. That doesn’t mean it’s not a need and doesn’t need to be addressed. The money spent in the county school system is for Hawkins Co. students, period. It’s not for Cherokee, it’s not for Volunteer, it’s for Hawkins County Students. I think we can do a lot as a staff and administration to try to break those barriers down that have been prevalent.”